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Newspaper account described deadly struggle at Antietam

‘Consummate valor marked the actions of every division in the field’

This barn in the Keedysville area was used as a hospital during the Battle of Antietam.
This barn in the Keedysville area was used as a hospital during the Battle of Antietam. Source: Library of Congress

The following is an excerpted account of the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War, as printed in the Sept. 10-24, 1862, issue of the Herald of Freedom and Torch Light. The account is in the Maryland Historical Society collection and can be found online at whilbr.org.

The battle raged on Sept. 17, 1862, from dawn until dusk in a cornfield, in a wooded area, at a bridge that came to be known as Burnside Bridge, and in Bloody Lane. When the battle ended, more than 23,000 men were listed as killed, wounded or missing.

Soldiers who fell during the  Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. The Dunker Church, which served as a hospital, is in the background.
Soldiers who fell during the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. The Dunker Church, which served as a hospital, is in the background. Source: Washington County Historical Society

The battle of Antietam

The greater part of the Rebel forces had found its way into the Neck, where the Potomac bends to the east below Sharpsburg, their rear resting on Sharpsburg. Here was destined to be the great contest of the rebellion.

To one who has never seen a battle-field it is impossible to describe intelligently this, or, indeed, any one. Old landmarks are forgotten or effaced, distance loses itself in the mind of the spectator, and space is measured only by the results which its occupancy produces. Thus has it been here.

Corn and stubble, pasture and fallow contribute their boundaries to the one great charnel house of the nation’s host, and on hill, in hollow, through field are strewn the bleeding, mangled bodies of dead and dying humanity. Here our lines stretched over a space of five miles, extending, on the extreme right, from near the intersection of the new and old roads to Sharpsburg, in an easy curve to the south-east, to where the left of Burnside rested at the foot of Elk Ridge Mountain. … On Tuesday morning, when the fight began, the base of operations was quite limited, the rebels occupying the hills on the west of the Antietam, immediately above Newcomer’s mill, the federals directly opposite, on another eminence.

The Dunker Church on Antietam National Battlefield as it looks today.
The Dunker Church on Antietam National Battlefield as it looks today. Photo by Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

Until nearly ten o’clock the firing was but occasional, each for the purpose of feeling the other’s position. But about ten the batteries opened on both sides, and for three hours the war of artillery was constant and deafening. The smoke lifted itself gracefully from the hollow between and coursing along the stream, via the mountains from view. Gradually, during the afternoon, were the lines extended, Hooker and Sumner passing over without any resistance and taking position to the front of the black and frowning mass of rebels in the wooded hills of Mumma’s and Miller’s farms — Porter and Burnside on the eastern bank of the creek on eminences, the whole overlooked by McClellan from his position on the hill south of Keedysville. Tuesday night passed with the pickets at each other’s elbows, and Wednesday dawned not “for the pomp and pride and circumstance of war,” but for a field of carnage. Scarcely was the sky illuminated ere Hooker awoke the silent echoes of the hills on which the rebels were posted, Rickett’s and Meade’s division steadily advancing. Stealing forward step by step, now infantry, now artillery, the lines were forced forward, plot and counterplot for positions, until a struggle more deadly than any this continent has ever witnessed, was for a half hour kept up, and then the rebel line swayed and fell back, but not in confusion.

Sharpsburg in 1862.
Sharpsburg in 1862. Source: U.S. Military Institute photo reprint

Dead on the field.

– Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Hood, when asked where his division was after the attack into the Cornfield during the Battle of Antietam

The cornfield at Antietam as it looks today. At dawn on Sept. 17, 1862, the battle that would be the bloodiest single day of the Civil War, began with an assault by Union soldiers on Confederates in Miller’s Cornfield. The battle was so intense that General Hooker was later to say that the corn stalks were cut off as close to the ground as if cut with a scythe.
The cornfield at Antietam as it looks today. At dawn on Sept. 17, 1862, the battle that would be the bloodiest single day of the Civil War, began with an assault by Union soldiers on Confederates in Miller’s Cornfield. The battle was so intense that General Hooker was later to say that the corn stalks were cut off as close to the ground as if cut with a scythe. Photo by Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

… Into the woods, and rallying, the tide changed, and again out of it came pouring the rebel’s endless lines …

Hartsuff fell severely wounded, but the line flinched not nor swerved. Here was the contest for the day. Rickett vainly endeavored to advance. Mansfield pushed on, but in vain. He fell mortally wounded. Hooker dismounted, reconnoitered his position, and once more forced forward and gained the hill. Half the ground lost was reoccupied, and though their general was borne from the field severely wounded they maintained their position, under Sumner, who took command. Again the tide changed and our men fell back, and again advanced, driving the rebels before them. … At one o’clock all looked gloomy and defeat seemed inevitable until fresh troops of Franklin came up and won the day. The rebels were driven to the range of hills by the church, where covered by the woods they rested their exhausted columns, while Sumner was too weak to do more than hold his position. Thus they stood at evening. Burnside was not inactive, but seemed paralyzed, and after several vain efforts it was only by a desperate charge that the bridge and hill in his front were gained, and that only amid great loss. Here again was the day almost lost, but the presence of Porter’s fifteen thousand veterans checked the onward march of the rebels.

Night came on and permission was asked by the rebels and granted to bury the dead and care for the wounded. Heap upon heap lay piled the dead and wounded. In one field where their advance was checked lay 1,217 rebel dead, while on the hill beyond a number nearly as great of our own men were left to the mercy of the enemy.

… Consummate valor marked the actions of every division in the field. But valor alone could not win the day. … As to their loss it is impossible to speak with certainty. It cannot be less than 15,000, and may be nearly double that number — nor can we yet ascertain the number of prisoners taken, certainly not less than 3,000.

Both sides were well whipped.

A survivor of the 3rd Alabama on the fighting in Sunken Road at the Battle of Antietam

During the bloodiest single day of fighting of the Civil War, action moved to Sunken Road shortly before 10 a.m. Before the Battle of Antietam ended at nightfall, the clay road used by farmers who wanted to bypass Sharpsburg would have a new name: Bloody Lane. When the fighting along Sunken Road ended, casualties numbered about 5,000. Pictured is Bloody Lane as it looks today.
During the bloodiest single day of fighting of the Civil War, action moved to Sunken Road shortly before 10 a.m. Before the Battle of Antietam ended at nightfall, the clay road used by farmers who wanted to bypass Sharpsburg would have a new name: Bloody Lane. When the fighting along Sunken Road ended, casualties numbered about 5,000. Pictured is Bloody Lane as it looks today. Photo by Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer
During the bloodiest single day of fighting of the Civil War, action moved to Sunken Road shortly before 10 a.m. Before the Battle of Antietam ended at nightfall, the clay road used by farmers who wanted to bypass Sharpsburg would have a new name: Bloody Lane. When the fighting along Sunken Road ended, casualties numbered about 5,000. Pictured is Bloody Lane as it looks today.
During the bloodiest single day of fighting of the Civil War, action moved to Sunken Road shortly before 10 a.m. Before the Battle of Antietam ended at nightfall, the clay road used by farmers who wanted to bypass Sharpsburg would have a new name: Bloody Lane. When the fighting along Sunken Road ended, casualties numbered about 5,000. Pictured is Bloody Lane as it looks today. Photo by Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer
Burnside Bridge at Antietam National Battlefield is serene today, but during the Battle of Antietam, the fighting moved to the 125-foot span over Antietam Creek. The bridge, known then as Lower Bridge or Rohrback Bridge, has since been known as Burnside Bridge for the Union general whose troops were held off most of the day by about 400 Georgia riflemen. By 1 p.m., Union soldiers crossed the bridge and headed toward Sharpsburg, but were driven back by rebels who arrived from Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Burnside Bridge at Antietam National Battlefield is serene today, but during the Battle of Antietam, the fighting moved to the 125-foot span over Antietam Creek. The bridge, known then as Lower Bridge or Rohrback Bridge, has since been known as Burnside Bridge for the Union general whose troops were held off most of the day by about 400 Georgia riflemen. By 1 p.m., Union soldiers crossed the bridge and headed toward Sharpsburg, but were driven back by rebels who arrived from Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Photo by Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer
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